On Being Created and Constructed, Part 1

This semester I am teaching my international cinema class, which I enjoy because it gives me a chance to delve more deeply into topics that interest me but that don’t exactly fit into most of my Spanish courses. The course is focused around the themes of gender roles and identity  (both masculine and feminine), gender disparity, and sexual orientation. We talk about gender stereotypes, the oppression of women, the treatment of LGBTQ folks, and the way that standards of masculinity harm men as well as women. It’s a fun class, but it has the potential to become a minefield of sensitive topics.

Early in the semester, we read an essay on the social construction theory of gender. For those of you who aren’t up on feminist thinking, social constructivism opposes the idea of biological essentialism: that our identities as men and women are biologically determined by little more than our anatomical sex. Or, to put it another way, biological essentialism means that if you know which type genitals a person has, you can also assume a great deal of other things about them: their dominant personality traits, their potential skills, their suitability for certain careers, their role in a family unit, their rights and responsibilities, etc.

Social constructivism (not a new idea) claims the opposite: that biology doesn’t have much to do with our gender identities. Instead, this theory claims that from the time we are born, we are socialized into certain behaviors and beliefs according to what our society deems is appropriate or ideal for a man or a woman. This starts with our obsession with gendering infants (just do a Google image search for “baby girl clothes” and “baby boy clothes” and see the predominance of pink vs. blue, flowers vs. baseballs, etc) and then progresses to the differing behavioral standards and expectations that we often set for boys and girls (again, you can see some confirmation of this with a quick image search; this time, try “toys for boys” and then “toys for girls” and think about how nearly all of the items fall into clear categories of active/violent vs. passive, mobile vs. stationary, outdoor vs. indoor, beauty/appearance based vs. skill based, domestic/maternal vs. career-oriented, etc). Thinking of this always reminds me of a day when I picked up my then four-year-old son from day care and the new teacher apologized to me because when I walked in, my son was playing with the baby dolls. Clearly, she felt uncomfortable being caught allowing this subversive behavior that was so ill-suited to my man-child!

This semester, I’ve had one student who has repeatedly challenged me on the “truth” of social constructivism, which is fine by me. I have seen enough evidence of it operating historically (especially in my area of expertise/favorite pigeon hole, which is 19th century Spanish gender ideology) and in my own life to be quite convinced that much of our gender identity is shaped by our socialization. I have seen how women in different times and places were expected to be and how that formed their identities. Why, if I had lived 150 years ago, instead of writing this, I might be writing in a women’s magazine about how a woman shouldn’t go to university because 1) women aren’t capable of abstract thought, and 2) all that intellectual rigor might affect her delicate nerves, irritate her uterus, and make her less fertile, and 3) everyone knows that women are divinely ordained to be wives and mothers! Fortunately for me, my uterus survived my PhD, and I came out of it buying into the social-constructionist view of how we become manly men, feminine women, or (thank God), sometimes another category entirely.

However, I have also carried, birthed, and nursed two babies and I know from those experiences and others that our biology and our hormones certainly can influence us as well. I remember that during the hormonal onslaught of my first pregnancy, something seemed to change in the way my brain worked, and I felt like I couldn’t process and speak my second language as well (fortunately my students did not seem to notice!). As a result, I think that the source of our identities lies somewhere in the middle of biology and construction. I suspect that there are biological/genetic/neurological factors that tell us from deep inside whether we are men or women (or neither), and whether that perception matches our physical body or not, as may be the case with transgender or intersex individuals.

But, once we are labeled with a gender (by society or by ourselves) there are a host of socially-constructed expectations revolving around that gender that we either accept or rebel against–from who gets to wear fingernail polish to who gets to speak up first at the meeting. Some of these rules are stricter than others, and transgressing them has a variety of consequences: the girl who doesn’t cave to feminine standards might be labeled a tomboy, or a bossy bitch, or a butch dyke, or the girl who just needs a good f—, or the wife who needs to be ‘put into her place’ with her husband’s fists or a gun. The boy who doesn’t measure up to masculine standards might just be the sensitive guy, might a sissy, might be a fag, might be the kid who gets beat up in the locker room or left to die on a fence post. Because no matter how we arrive at it, this shit is real.

I joke sometimes about being the liberal college professor out to corrupt the youth, but the truth is that I have little interest in turning any of my students into clones of myself by pushing a particular ‘truth’ or agenda on them. I’m still getting to the ‘truth’ of things myself, and I find that there are very few things in this life that don’t deserve some critical scrutiny or that should not be subject to revision now and then.

If there is anything that I do want to model for my students, it is the ability to hear other people’s stories with openness and compassion and to revise our own understanding of ourselves and others when needed. We can debate academic theories or religious beliefs all day long, but in the end it comes down to how we react to the people who challenge our expectations for what is ideal, normal, acceptable, or even comprehensible.

It’s okay to not ‘get it.’ If you are straight, if you are comfortable in your body and with your assigned gender roles, and perhaps especially if you have been taught that certain ways of being male or female are wrong, it’s okay to not understand why that girl wants to look edgily androgynous, why that guy is attracted to other guys, or why that other guy at the office now wants to be called “she.”

There are things that I don’t understand about identity and about the choices that some people make to live into their identities. There are topics that once made me uncomfortable, and a few that still do, but I have learned the value of listening to the experiences of others through forming relationships with people who are different from me and through resources like TranspeopleSpeak.org. I have yet to regret engaging with someone else’s story; in fact, the stories of others–in person, on screen, online–have been sources of growth, surprise, wonder, and beauty in my life.

It’s okay to not understand, but it’s not okay to try to force someone else to fit into your understanding of the world, whether that means chiding a little boy for playing with a doll, telling a little girl that she isn’t being ‘ladylike,’ or something much more drastic like yelling profanities and threats at a transperson on public transit (as happened to an acquaintance of mine recently). We need to realize that our expectations of people are just that–our expectations–and that they are neither absolute nor universal truths.

People face unkindness, ostracism, discrimination, and even death because of the ways that we as a society understand and enforce expectations of gender. It would do us all a great deal of good to realize that these expectations are not only constructed, but that they may need to be deconstructed and reconstructed in a ways that let all of us be our most authentic selves–the people we were created to be–without shame and without fear.

So, for any of my students who may stumble across this–as well as anyone else who may be reading–here is the best lesson I can give about when questions of gender identity or sexual orientation get confusing or uncomfortable:

Listen, try to understand, and if even if you can’t, remember to be kind. 

 

Branches of the Same Vine: Women, LGBTQ Christians, and my Dream for the Church

After two posts on LGBTQ stories, I had planned to take my series on stories and how they can be powerful agents of transformation in our lives in a different direction. However, since the ban on same-sex marriage was overturned in Alabama, events have put my church in the news and in hot water with our local Southern Baptist association. As a result, I have a little more to say on the way I have come to see my own story mirrored in the situation of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

If you click over to the “About me” page of this blog, you’ll quickly see why I no longer fit into Southern Baptist churches where I was raised. I am progressive, feminist, and pro-equality and inclusion. I am anti-legalism and pro-individual freedom and responsibility. As a Ph.D. in language and literature in I am also rather competent at reading, studying, and reaching my own conclusions about issues of belief and practice. But when you get right down to it, the main issue is that I am a woman who refuses to be treated as anything less than an equal, adult, contributing, and responsible member of a congregation.

The Southern Baptist Convention has pretty well drawn a line in the sand against people like me. Decades ago the SBC voted to limit what I believe is a central tenet of the Baptist faith, priesthood of the believer, in a move that reflected a concentration of power at the top and less freedom of conscience and belief for those below. Since then, the SBC has sought to enforce more specific scriptural interpretations on its members (like when it doubled-down on eternal conscious torment in hell–something not mentioned in the original Baptist Faith and Message–in the wake of Rob Bell’s influential and scripturally based book Love Wins).

More to the point here, in recent decades the SBC has also put forth specific statements to try to limit the participation of women in higher church leadership. Interestingly, before the year 2000, the Baptist Faith and Message did not exclude women from the pastorate, but in that year it was amended to limit the role of pastor to men. Sure, individual churches have the autonomy to decide if they will ordain women as deacons or ministers, but that doesn’t make up for the sexism of an organization where female seminary students are trained to be pastors’ wives or to minister only to other women

One of the reasons that I do not consider myself a Southern Baptist anymore is this position on women. At some point it dawned on me that I had grown up watching women do what seemed to be the majority of the work in the church, yet be denied a place in church leadership. In the churches that I grew up in, there were no female pastors, no female deacons, no women called on to pray, no female ushers. (I still wonder what could be so gender specific about handing out church bulletins and passing the offering plate?)

Women are not spiritually, morally, or intellectually inferior to men. In Christ there is neither male nor female, and that should be reflected in our churches. “Biblical” arguments to the contrary are contradicted in the Bible by Paul himself, who names one woman, Phoebe, as a deacon (Romans 16.1), and another, Junia, as an apostle (Romans 16.7). Yep, an apostle – the highest designation in the early church.

It is my firm belief that women who are called and equipped should have equal opportunity to participate in the church at all levels, and I decided about ten years ago that I would not join another church that did not ordain women as deacons and support women’s right to share the pulpit and the pastorate. Women have too often been excluded from church leadership simply on the basis of their sex, regardless of their calling or talent. I won’t put up with that anymore.

I made this decision because in churches who refuse to do these things, women are second-class citizens of the kingdom of God. I would be a second class citizen. My opinions on women, if expressed, would be devalued and rejected. Excuses would be made for unequal treatment and opportunities, and the Bible would be used to prop them up. I would have to keep my head down and pretend to be someone I’m not in order to fit in. As a result, I would be disengaged, unfulfilled, underutilized, and probably bitter and suffering in my spiritual life.

As an educated and dedicated Christian, I deserve better than that. I deserve to have spiritual role models and mentors who fully respect me, and I deserve to have some who also look like me. Most of all, I deserve a church where ALL of me fits in. Where I can work on being transformed into the image of Christ, not into an antiquated image of womanhood masquerading as Christian life.

From my own story, I know what it is like to go to a church and to have to keep my head down. I know what it feels like to have to keep part of myself hidden away to avoid causing a stir and risking a reprimand.

From there, I can extrapolate and somewhat imagine what it must be like to be in a different and darker closet–one where to open the door means to risk much more than a simple reprimand or a reminder of one’s ‘place.’ Where simply being oneself entails a very real risk of being condemned and ostracized, and perhaps not only from one’s church, but from one’s home and family. Where it may even result in physical assault in the name of Christianity.

LGBTQ people have too often been excluded from the church on the basis of their identities rather than their beliefs, intentions, and actions. They have had to choose between hiding who they are and pretending to fit in, or being honest about their identities and then having to live outside of the church and the borders it has built to separate descriptors like “gay” and “Christian” or “gay” and “moral.” Unlike women, they haven’t even been granted second-class citizenship. They are foreigners, left outside of the borders drawn against them.

Despite some efforts to separate the two categories, there are LGBTQ Christians, and they deserve better. They deserve a chance to be in community with other Christians, and they deserve to be able to be themselves, without being labeled with preconceived notions about their moral and spiritual character.

Some Christians worry that inviting LGBTQ folks into the church without trying to “reform” them necessarily means we are watering down our moral standards. It doesn’t.

Inviting LGBTQ folks–just as they are–into the church, and into the sacrament of marriage, means inviting them to share in the moral ideals of the church and of Christian life. It means that the same moral standards can apply to all of us, whether gay or straight: self control, patience, love, commitment, faithfulness, and so on. We are all made in the image of God, and despite our differences, if we seek God we all have the capacity to reflect that image in our lives, our service, and our (different-sex or same-sex) relationships. 

Having the “right” genitalia is not an indication of spiritual superiority or leadership potential, just as having the “right” sexual orientation is not a guarantee of morality. On the flip side, having the “wrong” gender or sexual orientation is not a guarantee of spiritual inferiority or immorality. It’s time to leave aside those labels and value judgments and see how we as individuals can all be branches of the same Vine, producing good fruit and loving one another.

This is my dream for the church, for it to be a place where the only identities that matter are those of Jesus-follower and beloved child of God.

Finding the Echoes in our Stories and the Grace in our Hearts

Stories are powerful.

My last post told a piece of the story of how I became an LGBTQ-affirming Christian. That story began with someone else’s story, with a novella and a film and a character whose humanity got under my skin. Curiously, over a decade after I first saw Strawberry and Chocolate, the process of digging up reading materials for my international cinema class led me to another story of a gay man of faith. This time, it wasn’t a fictional character, though, it was a blogger by the name of Kenny Pierce.

At the time, his name didn’t stick with me, but his story did. It was a story of coming out in the 1980s, of alienation from the church, and of surviving the AIDS epidemic while many friends weren’t so lucky. It was a story (as I remember reading it then) that staked out Kenny’s unlikely place as a Christian against two opposing camps: anti-gay Christians and anti-Christian gays. It was a story of a faith that could not be escaped by fleeing the church or be drowned by alcohol. It was also a story that radiated pain and love, and it stayed with me.

About two years later, around last August, I happened to cross paths with Kenny on Twitter because we were both following The Moonshine Jesus Show, and eventually I made the connection between him and the blog I had read long before. Since then, Kenny and I have struck up an online friendship, and so naturally I shared my post about Strawberry and Chocolate and my journey to becoming an LGBTQ ally with him. He’s a film buff, so I expected him to appreciate it on a couple of levels.

I surprised by one of his responses, however. He found an echo between my story of struggling with belief and his own experience of coming out, and he commented that I had “described the earliest feelings incredibly well.” Curiously, both of our journeys had a cinematic catalyst; Kenny wrote, “It was a film (Making Love) that sent me driving for an afternoon, staring at the road and just feeling terror…”

As we talked over our experiences, Kenny added this wistful comment: “I wish to God that the conversation that we’re having now had happened with the 21 year old kid in 1985 that was Kenny.” He went on to wonder what would have happened if he and so many others like himself had not been ostracized from their church and home communities, only to take refuge in big cities where they felt safer but where many would fall victim to AIDS.

I found that I didn’t have the words to respond to Kenny’s wish, and I finally settled for “I know. Me too.”

The thing is, I don’t know. My experience is a world away from Kenny’s. We are decade and a half apart, thousands of miles apart, and different in gender, sexual orientation, and countless other life experiences.

Yet, in spite of that, he found an echo of his story in mine. And when I think about it, I can find many echoes of my own story in his: feeling alienated in a community where I once fit in, finding myself adrift, only tenuously connected to my childhood faith, and yearning to be accepted without having to hide part of who I am. Of course, the degree of those experiences and the pain that they caused are different, but the echoes are a start, if not toward total understanding, then toward the possibility of empathy and grace.

If I needed a box of bandaids to knit together my spiritual scars, Kenny needed a team of surgeons. But here we are, finding the light in each other’s scars.

I’m glad I stumbled across Kenny’s story. I’m glad that I paused to listen, and that such a simple act can be a source of healing and affirmation.

The tragedy is that no one can go back and listen to 21-year-old Kenny’s story. It is too late to prevent a great deal of pain, too late to right a great many wrongs done to Kenny and those of his generation.

The good news is that we have opportunities all around us to do better. Behind every kid struggling with identity, behind every hard choice, and behind every screw-up is a story waiting to be heard. Often, if we pause to listen, we can find echoes of our own stories in the most surprising places, and in those echoes we can find compassion and grace that we never knew we had in ourselves, or that we never thought we deserved from others. We can find a chance at understanding, healing, and reconciliation.

Stories are powerful, but only if we keep listening until they resonate with our own, until familiar echoes overwhelm the distortions of fear or ignorance or misunderstanding and remind us that where it counts, we are much the same. We all need to speak and to be drawn into conversation, we all need to hear and be heard, and we all need to be greeted with grace and love no matter where we are in our own story.

May we listen until we find ourselves alongside the other, and in doing so, may we turn our stories into tales of love, grace, and transformation.


Thanks to Kenny Pierce for allowing me to share his comments. If you would like to check out Kenny’s blog, I recommend these posts: On Death, Dying, and Those who Still Wait, The Light in My Scars, and That’s my Given Name but a Lot of People Call me HIV.


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How I Found Gay Cuban Jesus and became an LGBTQ-Affirming Christian

When I was a senior in college (that is, 15 years ago now), I took a Hispanic literature and film class in which we watched the Cuban movie Strawberry and Chocolate. It was an uncomfortable experience for me.

I didn’t know what to expect from the film because as a fledgling reader of Spanish, I hadn’t made much headway with the short novel that the film is based on (The Wolf, the Forest, and the New Man by Senel Paz). For starters, I was a little shocked and embarrassed by a brief but strong (and very hetero) sex scene at the beginning of the film, and I remember surreptitiously glancing around at my classmates, thinking, “Did I really just see that in class?”

What followed left me even more unsettled, but for different reasons: A gay man (Diego) makes a play for a young straight man (David), and through various twists and turns of the plot, the two of them develop a genuine friendship and respect for one another. At the end of the film, they share an emotional embrace as Diego prepares to leave the country because of the communist regime’s repression of intellectual freedom and persecution of LGBTQ people.Screenshot 2015-02-04 15.18.58

It has been 15 years, but I still remember how that embrace bothered me. Despite the bright Cuban sunshine streaming in through the window, the act seemed sinister and threatening. Worrisome. The big bad wolf had somehow managed to get friendly with little Red Riding Hood, and that wasn’t how the story was supposed to end.

I didn’t really understand the film, but I knew that it contradicted what I had been taught: that homosexuality is a sin and that it should not be normalized and promoted, much less embraced. The film got under my skin despite the fact that Diego’s initial ploy to seduce David does not succeed; as Roger Ebert noted in his review of the film, Strawberry and Chocolate “is not a movie about the seduction of a body, but about the seduction of a mind.” At the time, I guess I was not quite prepared for either possibility.

This all happened before the term “gay agenda” gained traction, and before a one’s stance on homosexuality and same-sex marriage became such an important litmus test in certain circles for whether or not one is a “true” believer and practitioner of the Christian faith. In fact, the topic of homosexuality seemed distant and almost unreal as I grew up in rural south Georgia, far from the epicenters of the AIDS epidemic and blithely ignorant of any gay subtexts in the Queen songs that I learned from listening to the radio with my older brothers.

Homosexuality was a sin, but from my sheltered perspective it was a theoretical one, like making sacrifices to pagan gods . . . who did that? Not anyone that I knew! A year or two into college, I did have a bisexual friend (one of my best, in fact), but I was conveniently spared from having to confront the issue when she started dating a guy shortly after we met.

In this context, I wasn’t exactly homophobic, and I didn’t hate or gay-bash LGBTQ folks (that is, the two or three whom I knew at that point), but nevertheless, when I was suddenly confronted with having to think and write about gay men and their stories (we also read and watched Kiss of the Spider Woman), I was profoundly unsettled by the contradictions between what I believed and what I felt, and I was caught between the impulse to identify with the characters or to keep them at arm’s length as foreign and possibly dangerous others.

So, you could say that Diego was the first (albeit fictional) person to seriously challenge my beliefs on homosexuality and LGBTQ people, and that first time around, I couldn’t identify with him. I couldn’t accept that final embrace.

Several years later and quite a bit farther down the road of my Christian journey, I decided to rewatch Strawberry and Chocolate when I was choosing films for a Hispanic cultures class (mostly, I confess, because it was one of only two Cuban films that I had ever seen).

I was looking for relevant cultural content for my students, but what I found instead was Jesus.

Gay Cuban Jesus, to be precise.

That, and a change of heart.

As I rewatched (and then re-rewatched) Strawberry and Chocolate, I came not only to identify with Diego, but to love and respect him just as David, his young straight friend in the film, does. I learned to see his goodness and passion, and to see the evil of the regime that oppresses him and ultimately forces him to leave the country that he loves. I also noticed something that I think I completely missed the first time around: Diego’s identity in the film is not limited to that of gay man, or even that of passionate, oppressed intellectual.

Diego is also a creyente, a believer . . . one might even go so far as to call him a Christian. Not quite the same variety as most of us, for sure, but a believer nonetheless. When I first saw the film, I hadn’t known what to make of his odd relationship with the statue of his patron saint, or with the troubling and potentially sacrilegious statue of Jesus that is hidden under a sheet in his apartment, waiting to be shown at an art exhibition.

Screenshot 2015-02-04 15.34.01

The statue is a fairly standard representation of Jesus, but it is pierced in several places by the communist sickle, resulting in an image that I originally saw as a statement against Christ and Christianity on the part Diego’s artist friend, who is also gay. Oh boy, did I miss the point.

The statue is more likely a criticism of the communist regime that restricted religious practice and that spied on, discriminated against, and even persecuted people of faith . . . just like it spied on, discriminated against, and persecuted gay men like Diego.

Regardless of his love of Cuba and his desire to contribute to its betterment, Diego is pierced over and over by rejection and censorship. When he takes too firm of a stand for artistic freedom, his life, like the plan for the exhibition of the Jesus statue, is ruined. Diego, like the subversive statue of Christ, is forced to exist in hiding. When he objects, he loses his job and is blacklisted and forced into exile away from the country that he has loved so dearly . . . and that he still loves despite the rejection and persecution that he has suffered at its hands.

Kind of like Jesus, still loving the people who nailed him to a cross.

At one point in the film, Diego insists, “I am a part of this country, like it or not, and I have a right to work for its future! . . . Without me, you’re missing a piece!”

He was right . . . the Revolution lost something when it silenced his voice, when it ostracized him and forced him into exile.

How many LGBTQ people have been silenced or exiled by the church? What suffering have we caused, and what have we lost as a result?

How many times have Christians done the persecuting? How many times have we been the Romans with nails, the ideologues with sickles?

And how many times have we excused ourselves by talking about “sin” when none of us has the right to cast stones?

This is not a post about whether homosexual behavior is sinful or not (if you want to read more on that, check here, here, or here). This is a post, in part, about why “sin” isn’t the point.

The point is that people of faith–gay and straight and both and neither–are all part of the church. We all deserve the chance to be in community and to contribute to the future of our faith. We all lose when we exclude and ostracize others who want to be in community.

The point is also that LGBTQ people are just that, people, who have stories that we need to hear, respect, and find ourselves in. When I took a step back from my ideology and really listened to Diego’s story, I could no longer find it in myself to reject and condemn him. In the end, like David, I was seduced . . . not by “sin,” but by Diego’s quirky, passionate, flawed, and honest humanity. By the person behind the label.

Through Diego and David’s story, I understood how I was part of the regime–how I was the crucifier, not the crucified. I realized that I was on the wrong side.

I finally found the joy of that embrace, a joy which has been translated in my life from the fiction of a film to friendships that I treasure and people that I love.

Thank you for that, Diego. Thank you for being my gay Cuban Jesus.


This post is dedicated to my LGBTQ friends and students, and to the first same-sex couples being officially married in the state of Alabama today. Love wins!  


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